These films usually provide the opportunity for larger-than-life action coupled with plenty of humor. Wikipedia sums it up nicely by describing them as having plots “involving two people of very different and conflicting personalities who are forced to work together to solve a crime and/or defeat criminals, sometimes learning from each other in the process.”
One of the earliest examples of this type of film — though far more serious than these things usually are — is In The Heat Of The Night, which went on to win the 1967 Academy Award for Best Picture Of The Year. It stars Sidney Poitier as a black police officer from Philadelphia whose murder investigation leads him to the extremely racist town Mississippi, and focuses on his dealings with the sheriff played by Rod Steiger. Flash-forward seven years to Freebie And The Bean, which is much closer to the formula audiences would eventually become familiar with. James Caan is Freebie and Alan Arkin is Bean, a pair of San Francisco cops who are out to take down a crime boss — if they don’t kill each other in the process.
What follows is a look at what we feel to be 10 great examples of the Buddy Cop film.
10. Alien Nation (1988)
America’s newest immigrants are the Tenctonese, an alien race of slaves that have inadvertently crashed on Earth and assimilated into society — and given awful names by immigration officials (i.e. Jim Nasium) in the process. One of them, George “Sam” Francisco (Mandy Patinkin) has become a Los Angeles detective, and finds himself teamed up with Matthew Sykes (James Caan), who happens to be an alien racist. The duo investigate a murder with a constant verbal sparring between them, and ultimately come together to combat Tenctonese businessman/crime boss William Harcourt (Terence Stamp), who is peddling a drug that turns his people into monsters. This film spawned a television series, novels and comic books, with periodic rumblings of a remake.
9. The Hard Way (1991)
Veteran New York Detective John Moss (James Woods) reluctantly finds himself partnered with Hollywood superstar Nick Lang (Michael J. Fox). The latter is trying to be taken more seriously as an actor, and to do so gets special permission to be partnered with Moss to research a new role he wants to audition for. Ignoring orders, Moss continues investigating the serial killer known as the “Party Crasher” (Stephen Lang) and nearly gets Nick killed a couple of times. Through it all, these two guys, who couldn’t be more diametrically opposed, are drawn together, actually saving each other. By the end we’re still not sure how much they like each other.
8. Die Hard With a Vengeance (1995)
Third entry in the Die Hard series, this one brings John McClane (Bruce Willis) back to his native New York, shaking up the formula be removing the character from a confined space where he must save the day. Now he’s racing all over New York, accompanied by shop owner Zeus Carver (Samuel L. Jackson), as they try to stop Simon Gruber (whose brother McClane tossed out a window in the first film) from setting off explosions around the city. In reality, he’s keeping them busy while undertaking a bigger score. All of that doesn’t matter nearly as much as the back and forths between McClane and Carver.
7. Rush Hour (1998)
Hong Kong Inspector Lee (Jackie Chan) comes to America, where he teams with LAPD Detective Carter (Chris Tucker) in an effort to save the kidnapped daughter of the Chinese Consul. Director Brett Ratner finds the perfect balance between action and comedy, and what a great introduction for audiences of Tucker. People loved it, resulting in two theatrical sequels and a short-lived television series.
6. Midnight Run (1988)
Robert DeNiro is bounty hunter Jack Walsh, and Charles Grodin is Jonathan “The Duke” Mardukas, an accountant who embezzled $15 million from the Chicago mob. Jack is hired to find and capture The Duke, and fly him back to LA from Chicago. What should be an easy score, turns into a comic nightmare when the Duke refuses to fly and they have to cross-country by other means, with extremely limited funds while finding themselves in the crossfire of the mob and the FBI. Most shocking? Genuine character growth.
5. Running Scared (1986)
Chemistry is absolutely in the forefront here between Gregory Hines’ Ray Hughes and Billy Crystal’s Danny Costanzo, a pair of Chicago detectives who are trying to take down drug dealer Julio Gonzales (Jimmy Smits). The difference between this one and the other buddy-cop films is they actually are buddies. They fight constantly, but there isn’t the adversity that’s a hallmark of the genre, and it’s still hysterical. Over the years there had been lots of talk of a sequel, but it never came together, everyone involved feeling they couldn’t match the original. Good call.
4. Bad Boys (1995)
Miami detectives Mike Lowrey (Will Smith) and Marcus Burnett (Martin Lawrence) are tasked with keeping a murder witness (Tea Leoni) alive while simultaneously trying to retrieve $100 million worth of heroin that was grabbed by the Mafia. The testosterone level on this one is through the roof, not just from the leading men but by the fact that it was produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and marked the directorial debut of Michael Bay. Laughs, vulgarity, action and huge explosions everywhere. Spawned two sequels which never quite equaled the original.
3. Lethal Weapon (1987)
One of the two action movies that not only epitomized the ‘80s, but pushed the genre forward (the other being 1988’s Die Hard). Mel Gibson is suicidal cop Martin Riggs, grieving over the death of his wife. Danny Glover is Detective Roger Murtaugh, who is this close to retiring. When they’re teamed up they end up taking on a drug cartel. Riggs and Murtaugh really hate each other, but gradually come to a mutual respect with Riggs perhaps finding more of a reason to live, and Murtaugh coming to realize that maybe he’s not too old for this shit. Spawned three theatrical sequels and a two-season TV series. There are rumblings that Gibson may direct he and Glover in Lethal Weapon 5.
2. 48hrs. (1982)
This is the one that really put the buddy cop genre on the map. Nick Nolte is San Francisco cop Jack Cates and Eddie Murphy is convict Reggie Hammond. Cates needs to spring Hammond from jail (for 48 hours, naturally) to help track down one of his former gang mates, Ganz (James Remar), who has broken out of jail and is on a killing spree. Director Walter Hill brings real grit (helped in no small way by Remar’s performance) counter-balanced by the repartee between Nolte and Murphy, and an absolutely incredible score by James Horner. This marked Murphy’s big screen debut, and there’s no question why he went on to such stardom.
1. Lethal Weapon 2 (1989)
Yep, this series makes the list twice. As the Warner Bros logo comes up, a Looney Tunes riff is played, which leads directly into a wild car chase with Riggs and Murtaugh (Mel Gibson and Danny Glover) in pursuit of bad guys. Remember how different in tone yet equally engrossing Aliens was compared to Alien? That’s what we get with this sequel. Riggs is still nuts, but he’s no longer looking to swallow a bullet as he’s been able to plant roots with Murtaugh and his family. Returning director Richard Donner never lets things sag, action and humor going hand-in-hand. And we get Joe Pesci as accountant/Federal witness Leo Getz, who this dynamic duo has to keep alive from the South African drug dealers who have targeted him and who they happen to be investigating. Awesome!